One Year In Lockdown

Today marks one year since I went into self-isolation on my return from my last work trip to the universities of Southampton and Stavanger, ten days before the UK went into its first official lockdown. In the last year I have not travelled by train, bus, plane or taxi; had a drink in a pub or bar or a meal in a café or restaurant; entered any house other than my own or my father’s. I go to the supermarket once a week most weeks, and have been to seven other shops in the course of the year. Mostly I have been at home, because even when we were allowed to go to pubs and restaurants and visit other homes last summer, I didn’t think it was safe. Not least because by then I knew I had three of the four risk factors for long-haul COVID (I’m female, over 50, and suffer from asthma; the risk factor I don’t have is being overweight).

I have seen one friend, who lives nearby, every few weeks for a distanced walk. Two families visited me in my garden last summer, one of them twice, again at a distance, and I attended a small distanced gathering in another friend’s garden. Last weekend I saw that friend again for a distanced walk. Once in a while I get to chat to my neighbour over the fence.

On 2 April 2020 my mother died from the virus. We didn’t have a funeral. It was June before I could visit and hug my Dad. Then there was my more recent assessment and diagnosis, which was hanging over me for most of the year. And it was a tough year for other reasons apart from lockdown, too; reasons connected with the stories of people close to me which are not mine to tell.

There are many ways in which I have been, and am, lucky. Being able to stay at home is a privilege. I can work in my own office, and I have work that I enjoy, which provides an income and a wonderful distraction and solace. I live in a spacious house with a garden, a park ten minutes’ walk away, and lovely countryside within a few minutes’ drive. I can afford some luxuries as well as necessities. I am not alone; my partner has been an invaluable support. The people in my town are mostly good at wearing masks and distancing, and smiling, and being kind. I can see trees, grass, and flowers from my desk. I have had my first vaccination. Throughout this year I have been able to keep myself, my family, and others safe from the virus, by staying at home.

It is hard to say when we will come out of this situation. People are saying in the summer – but then people said that last year. When it does happen, I think it will be weird. I know there is a chunk of grieving for my mother that I have been unable to do because my life is so restricted. I know this because I had a dentist’s appointment earlier this year, and found myself in tears in the waiting room, and then realised it was the first time I’d been to the dentist since before my mother died, and that had triggered a grief response. In the normal course of events we would get through all those ‘firsts’ in a few weeks or months. I have a whole lot of them still to come.

Being among people again will also be weird. Recently I saw a short video on a WhatsApp group, from my family in Australia, in a bar, showing off some fancy cocktails. In the background I could hear people talking and laughing, and music – the normal sounds of people in a bar in the early evening; sounds I haven’t heard for a year. I had forgotten. There is so much I have forgotten. My Dad lives a couple of hours’ drive away and I have been visiting him every other weekend since last June. A couple of months ago, coming home, the motorway was jammed, I had to detour, and the car needed fuel. So I stopped at a petrol station where I couldn’t pay at the pump as I usually do. I went into the shop and walked up and down the aisles in bewilderment, dazzled by the colours and the products. I had forgotten about ready-made sandwiches, and ‘sharing packs’ of crisps and chocolates, and branded self-service coffee machines.

I think this forgetting is a kind of self-protection. It is hard to think about the way I used to live. I can’t bear to look at the ‘before’ pictures on my phone. So I get up each morning, exercise in my house, go to work in my office in the garden, take a short walk, go home at the end of the day, put a few pieces into the current jigsaw, eat, rest, go to bed. The next day is the same, and the next.

One effect of this is that I rarely have anything to talk about with other people. Nothing happens. There are no plans to make. I rang a friend the other day.

“I bet you don’t have any news,” he said gloomily.

“I do, as it happens.”

He perked up immediately. “You have actual news? Don’t tell me yet, let me savour this moment.”

After I told him about my diagnosis, he wanted to talk about it for a long time, examining it from all angles, like a shiny new toy.

Staying at home is the sensible thing to do, for those who can, when there is a global pandemic. But living with constant uncertainty takes a toll. I don’t think we will know the full extent of that toll until after the event. And we don’t know when ‘after the event’ will be. There is likely to be an element of Russian roulette when restrictions start to lift, for two reasons: first, the virus is still around, and not everyone has been vaccinated or otherwise developed immunity; second, the vaccine won’t work for everyone, and we can’t know who it doesn’t work for until it doesn’t work for them.

So, am I going to be writing another of these posts, a year from now? I hope not, but it is possible.

Coming Out As Autistic

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I received an informal diagnosis of autism in July 2019. Initially, I didn’t plan to seek a formal diagnosis, but then I learned about the “lost generation” of autistic people, mostly women, who were not diagnosed in childhood because the way their autism manifested didn’t fit the diagnostic criteria which had been developed from observing some autistic boys. As a lifelong feminist, I decided I needed to find out for sure so that, if I did receive a formal diagnosis, that would, if only in a very small way, help to redress that imbalance.

So I went to my GP in August 2019, armed with a copy of Camouflage: The Hidden Lives of Autistic Women, an excellent graphic novel by Sarah Bargiela and Sophie Standing. I had also taken the AQ10 test and scored 9 out of 10. My GP was kind, understanding and knowledgeable; he told me he had been through the process with other people. In September 2019 he sent me a 50-question test which I completed and sent back, though parts of it seemed rather out of date (Q: “Do you remember all the phone numbers you use?” A: “I used to but I haven’t had to dial a number in years, have you not heard of mobile phones?”)

Then I heard nothing for a year. I suspect the pandemic didn’t help. By summer 2020 I was getting antsy, and an autistic friend of mine referred me to an autistic friend of hers for advice. We chatted on WhatsApp and my adviser said she was sure I was autistic. She suggested I read two books: Divergent Mind by Jenara Nerenberg and Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism edited by Michelle Garnett and Barb Cook, to ‘find the fruits in my personal autism fruit salad’. This is an ongoing process, but so far I have identified:

  • A degree of alexithymia (impaired awareness of emotions)
  • Sensory processing problems (all sorts of ‘normal’ things I can’t stand: nightclub environments, labels in my clothes, jewellery hanging off me and clanking, the sound of a tap dripping, the feeling of most synthetic fabrics – I could go on)
  • Information processing problems (I have great difficulty in staying engaged with talk radio, audiobooks, podcasts etc; even if it’s something I want to listen to, I can’t concentrate and my thoughts drift off elsewhere, and I find TV boring)
  • Co-ordination problems (my balance is not good and I’m very clumsy; I need to investigate the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, and interoception, to see if I can figure out why).

Also I have a couple of the auto-immune health conditions which are common in autistic people – in my case, asthma and fibromyalgia. And there’s plenty else besides: literal thinking; ability to focus intensely on a task of interest; inability to remember left and right, or which way to turn a screw to tighten or loosen it; plain speaking; strong dislike for bright lights and loud music; repetitive thoughts (they can be really annoying); silent counting (that’s very soothing); very acute sense of smell (not always a blessing); and lots more.

My adviser also suggested I join a couple of Facebook groups for autistic women. She explained that self-diagnosis is accepted in the autistic community – I later discovered this is not least because some people in some countries can’t get an actual diagnosis, e.g. because it’s not covered by health insurance (oh I do love the NHS). So I joined the groups and found them hugely helpful, though ironically I haven’t been on FB in recent months, because I can’t stand the new design, because, yes, I’m autistic!

The assessment was done by the Adult ADHD and Autism Service of my local NHS Healthcare Trust. The process began in early December with a phone appointment which, to my surprise, was a battery of personal questions. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) Tell me about your family, your early childhood, your schooling, your friendships… The woman asking the questions was very kind, but it was, as one friend said, like therapy without any actual therapy. Then the Service emailed me a form for ‘someone close to me’ to fill in, which asked about my ability to engage socially (not bad in some circumstances), whether I take things literally (hell yeah, gets me into all sorts of trouble), my response to changes of plan (noooooo!!), and so on. The form was completed over the winter holiday and sent back at the end of December.

Then on 22nd February I had a video appointment with a mental health nurse. He told me the assessment was multi-disciplinary and that, although in this appointment I would only see him, he had consulted with his colleagues. Then he asked me another whole bunch of questions, some of which I had already been asked by the woman on the phone, and finally told me I am autistic. “There is no doubt,” he said. He also explained that they don’t give classifications, just a diagnosis, but I don’t care what kind of autistic I am, it’s enough to have a word to explain a whole lot of things I have spent my life being unable to understand.

Over the last couple of weeks I have come out in person to my family, friends, and colleagues. A few people knew I was going through the assessment; most didn’t. I know I have been extremely lucky that almost everyone reacted positively and supportively. Several friends said things like ‘I don’t know anything about autism but I know you and I love you and please tell me all about it when we speak’, which was fine by me. Many were genuinely interested, which was nice. And some colleagues floored me with the level of their support and care.

Now I am coming out in public. I am happy and proud to be autistic.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Dealing With Unsolicited Emails

I get so many emails. GDPR has helped a bit; the number of unsolicited emails from random businesses has dropped, and those I get usually have an ‘unsubscribe’ option. Some of the emails I get are emails I want, such as emails from clients, publishers, family, and friends. In an average working day, depending on what I’m dealing with at the time, I am likely to send 30-60 replies myself; on a busy day it can be over 100. I know some people receive and send many more emails than I do, but for me this is a lot, and the number has grown gradually over the years. Back in 2009, when I was also busy, I was sending 10 replies on an average day.

For years now I have received increasing numbers of messages from readers, and students, and others who want my help. They send me emails, and Twitter DMs, and Insta DMs, and messages on ResearchGate and LinkedIn, and probably messages on Facebook too but I never did sign up to Messenger so I don’t know about those ones. I like to help, when I can, and often I am able to answer a question or point to a useful resource. But the volume of messages has reached the point where I need to change my approach.

I tweeted about this last week and was surprised by the number of replies – and, in some cases, the content. One person suggested that this may be due to supervisors or lecturers or managers suggesting that novice researchers should network in this way. If you are a supervisor, lecturer, or manager who is doing this, please stop it immediately! It places a huge and inappropriate burden on people.

The most common suggestion on Twitter was ‘delete and move on’. That surprised me too, though I can understand why people do this; there are times I have been tempted. But I don’t feel comfortable with this option, so I’m going with another suggestion: the template reply. Here is what I plan to write:

I receive too many requests for help and advice to answer them all individually, so I have created this standard response.

A significant proportion of the questions that come to me could be answered by using a search engine. For a mainstream search engine, I recommend duckduckgo as an ethical option. For scholarly search engines, the Directory of Open Access Journals is useful, or of course Google Scholar.

Many of the other questions I am asked are about independent research or academic writing. I put information about these and related topics on my blog. My blog is searchable for specific terms, and also has more general tags you can click on such as ‘independent research’ or ‘writing’ to bring you all the posts on that topic.

The answers to a small number of questions can be found in one or other of my books. I realise these are not a free resource unless you can get them through a library, but they are all affordable by Euro-Western standards, and you can check the contents on the publishers’ websites.

So why am I posting this here, you may ask? Because now I have a link I can share in response to the Twitter DMs, and the Insta DMs, and the messages on LinkedIn and ResearchGate, and no doubt other messaging systems tech companies will devise in the future.

I am sorry to have to do this, and I have held out as long as I could. But I can’t cope with the current level of demand, and I know it will only continue to increase unless I take action.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why We Need To Cite Marginalised Writers

I have been reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It is a carefully researched, intelligently structured and well-written book, and I am a lifelong feminist, yet I find it difficult to read. Its subtitle is Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men and it sheds light on areas of discrimination I hadn’t even considered, like the design of outdoor spaces. And with the areas of discrimination I had considered, after reading this book I have to acknowledge that I hadn’t considered them enough or worked hard enough to tackle them. This is thoroughly uncomfortable, and I value the discomfort for helping me to think and act.

Having said that, it is not always easy to know where and how to act – or to act effectively even if you do know. I have witnessed prejudice and thought ‘I should challenge that’ but not figured out how to do so effectively until after the event. Sometimes I have challenged prejudice and that challenge has been ineffective. Understanding all the different forms of discrimination, and how they manifest, is probably impossible, particularly as knowledge in these areas is developing all the time. And the structural fault-lines of inequality that run through our societies are too big for any individual to change; those need collective action. But there are actions we can make as individuals, safely and effectively, which will make a difference.

In Euro-Western academia, the upper echelons are dominated by white, middle-class or upper-class men (that’s on p 95 of Invisible Women, not that I think anyone disputes this any more). There is tons of research to demonstrate that people of other genders are disadvantaged in academic careers, particularly if they choose and are able to have children. Even if they are performing well, academics who are not white men are less likely to get jobs, have their work cited, gain promotion or tenure (pp 95-6). And we know it’s not just academics from non-male genders and/or working class backgrounds who struggle, but also academics of colour, disabled academics, queer academics, Indigenous academics, unemployed academics, trans academics, and so on. We also know about intersectionality, so we understand that an academic may be working-class and disabled and trans, and that their struggle will be even harder.

I am not in a position to give work to an academic who needs it, or to bestow promotion, or tenure, or employment rights. But one thing I can do is read and cite work by marginalised scholars. And so can you. This is particularly important if you are a white middle- or upper-class male, because your work carries more weight whether you believe it, or like it, or not. But it is very much worth doing whatever your own attributes.

If you haven’t thought about this before, analyse your most recent bibliography. How many of the people you cite are men? How many are middle- or upper-class white men? How many are women, people of colour, disabled, queer, trans? This may take some time as it will not be obvious from people’s names alone. In some cases you are likely to know the answers, in others you may have to do some digging online. You’re not likely to find all of the relevant information, but you should be able to find much of what you need.

In most fields it is reasonably easy to find work to cite by women and by academics of colour. It can be more difficult to find work by others such as Indigenous academics, particularly in some fields, and trans academics. Every citation counts. Of course their work does need to be relevant to yours; I’m not suggesting you perform scholarly contortions to ram in a citation. Having said that, though, reading beyond your own field or discipline can be surprisingly useful. And the work of marginalised scholars may be invaluable for the insights only they can generate and the connections only they can make.

A lot of marginalised scholars, understandably, work on their own area. So to find disabled academics you could check out disability studies, and trans studies for trans academics, and so on. But then, crucially, investigate the scholars you find there to see what other work they are doing. And when you find marginalised scholars doing work that is relevant to your own, use your authorial power to amplify their voices.

There are many more marginalised scholars around than you would think from reading the standard literature, and the numbers are growing. In a 2019 article Emmett Harsin Drager said they were a member of a Facebook group with over 500 other trans-identified doctoral students, some of whom will now be post-docs – and no doubt that Facebook group is larger now.

Citations are not the only way forward. If you have the power, it is also useful to invite marginalised scholars on to panels, in to study groups, or in research teams (as paid staff, not volunteers). There are some useful articles here on how to include Indigenous researchers and Indigenous knowledge in academia/research. But citations are a way in which every single one of us can take action.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Ethics of Writing

An earlier version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA). The SRA has its own blog with topical peer-reviewed articles by and for researchers. They are also interested in contributions from readers so, if you fancy writing a guest post, you could give them a try.

Most professional writers believe that the way we think and feel influences the words we choose to write, and understand that the words we choose to use can influence the thoughts and feelings of others. We need to become, and remain, aware of this, or we risk misusing our authorly power.

A generation or so ago, English terminology in common use reflected the dominance of men in Western society. A woman could be fired from her job in the US for being pregnant as late as 1978, and UK pubs could refuse to serve women as late as 1982. But at the same time, women had begun to take roles traditionally assigned to men, which led to some linguistic oddities. I remember feeling rather uncomfortable with being designated the ‘chairman’ of a committee, in the late 1990s, when ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ would have served.

There were fierce arguments between those who did not accept that language influences thought (still a contentious hypothesis), and those who believed that traditional language use supported the discriminatory status quo and therefore should be challenged. Some people went further than I thought was sensible, such as by replacing ‘history’ with ‘herstory’ (I can see the point of that kind of change in some circumstances, but the etymology of ‘history’ suggests it’s much more about the ‘story’ than the ‘his’) or ‘woman’ with ‘womyn’ (I didn’t get that one at all). This kind of terminological tinkering led to the phrase ‘political correctness’ being used to discredit all attempts to replace sexist terms with existing, sensible, neutral terms. I still wince when I see reports of women ‘manning a stall’ – what’s wrong with ‘staffing’? But it’s now quite usual to speak of a ‘police officer’ rather than ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’, and a ‘flight attendant’ rather than an ‘air hostess’ or ‘steward’. These changes in terminology have moved in parallel with increasing opportunities and equality for women in the Western world.

However, there is some newer terminology that I think is unhelpful for some sections of society. For example, in the Guardian a couple of years ago the non-fiction writer Steven Poole gave a thoughtful analysis of the unintentional difficulties caused by the phrase ‘first world problems’. He showed how the reductive use of ‘first world’, with its implicit opposition to the ‘third world’ (itself an unfashionable term these days), enables some people to condescend, patronise, humblebrag, sidestep compassion, and generally dehumanise pretty much everyone else. Another one is the new-ish way of designating something as somehow poor by saying ‘it gets old really fast’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the discrimination and difficulties experienced by older members of our society. I would prefer colloquial usage of the word ‘old’ to have positive connotations. And several chaps of my acquaintance have objected to ‘mansplaining’, not being proponents of the phenomenon that clumsy construction purports to name.

Terms like these swiftly become stock phrases, akin to clichés. And clichés are evidence of lazy thinking. All this has implications for us as writers. Writing is a creative process, and that includes writing for research. Stories must be told, words and structures chosen, and these processes involve a lot of decision-making. Researchers of all kinds earn our livings with our brains. I would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to avoid the lazy clichés and express our new thinking in fresh language. Also, we should try to remain aware of the potential effects of our creative choices on our readers. My examples have focused on gender, socio-economic status, and age; other terminology can be demeaning to different groups such as people of colour or people with mental health problems. It is our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that we don’t use language in a way that supports any discriminatory actions or practices.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Open Access Research Methods Resources

Last week Anna Fazackerley wrote an article in The Guardian about the current price-gouging practices of some academic publishers who have hiked the price of e-books used by university students, in some cases by around 500%. I was aware of this from discussions on Twitter, though I am glad to say none of my own books are affected; they are all reasonably priced.

I realise, though, that my idea of a reasonable price for a book will be completely unaffordable for many people. So I thought I would gather some of the excellent open access resources from my field of research methods.

The National Centre for Research Methods, here in the UK, has a large and growing body of searchable open access resources on their newly revamped website. This covers quantitative and qualitative methods, conventional and creative methods – not quite every method under the sun, but close; an excellent collection that is well worth exploring.

The Global Social Change Research Project curates a lot of open access resources, more on quantitative methods with some qualitative methods. It is searchable and the links down the left-hand side of the page are also useful for navigation.

The British Library’s Social Welfare Portal is very useful for anyone interested in UK social policy: its development, implementation, and evaluation. You can search for ‘downloadable content only’, which should be OA, or ‘all social welfare content’, which is likely to include some paywalled items.

Then there are a whole bunch of open access research methods journals, covering quantitative, qualitative, and creative methods.

Quantitative journals include the Journal of Modern Applied Statistical Methods, the Journal of Methods and Measurement in the Social Sciences, Survey Research Methods, Survey Methods: Insights From The Field and Survey Practice. The first four are peer reviewed while Survey Practice is editor reviewed.

Social Research Practice is the peer-reviewed journal of the Social Research Association, and it includes all kinds of methods.

Then there are three good qualitative journals, which also include reports of creative research methods. They are Forum: Qualitative Social Research (FQS), The Qualitative Report, and Qualitative Sociology Review. The first two are multi-disciplinary, and all are peer reviewed.

Art/Research International is a multi-disciplinary peer reviewed journal focusing on arts-based research.

The publishers I work with are Routledge, SAGE, and Policy Press. They represent a cross-section of academic publishing. Routledge is part of Taylor & Francis which is part of Informa, a global multinational. SAGE is an independent publishing house. Policy Press is an imprint of Bristol University Press (BUP). Routledge’s profits mostly go to Informa’s shareholders, and BUP is not for profit. Nevertheless, BUP creates open access resources such as a blog, podcasts and webinars – but these understandably focus on all the topics it publishes, not only research methods. SAGE majors on research methods and reinvests some of its profits into resources for the communities it serves. It offers loads of free resources on research methods, an online research community called Methodspace, a research methods resource centre, and lots more which you can access through those links.

So although some publishers are shamelessly taking advantage of the pandemic, others are working hard to help those affected. No doubt there are more resources than those I have listed here. If you know of others, please share them in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Creative Writing for Social Research

Today is the official launch day for Creative Writing for Social Research, the book Richard Phillips and I have written, with 14 short contributions from other creative scholarly writers. I am so proud of this book! It is not perfect – no book is perfect – but I think it is the book I am most proud to have written. We will be on Twitter for much of the day: you can find all the launch information via #CreativeAcWri.

Every book has out-takes; good sections that, for sensible reasons, don’t make the final cut. To celebrate the launch of this book, I thought I would share one of its out-takes that I drafted, and was – am – fond of, but which just didn’t fit. It is about field notes, and centres on an excerpt from Eating Soup Without A Spoon by Jeffrey Cohen. That is an ethnography I love because, unlike most anthropologists, the author discusses his methods.

Here is the out-take:

“Ethnographers, who might spend years living with the people they are studying, were the first social researchers to use their own field notes as data. In the early 1990s, the American anthropologist Jeffrey Cohen and his wife Maria spent a year living in the rural village of Santa Ana del Valle in Oaxaca district in Mexico. Cohen writes eloquently about the complexity hidden by the glib term ‘field notes’ (2015:39-40):

Each night found me sitting at my desk writing notes; in fact, most nights found me writing at least two and sometimes three different kinds of notes.

The first notes, to which Maria contributed as well, were daily diary-like entries recording observations and exploring our experiences as we were introduced to village life. We wrote about shopping, about social life and the gendered divisions that defined what men and women were doing in their lives and around their homes, managing kitchens and the challenge of keeping a house clean.

I also described our home and the houses we visited, noting the physical trappings of life such as the layout of compounds, what people owned, and what luxuries were present.

A second set of notes was anthropological. Although they also explored our experiences in and around the village and market, they were organized around critical themes in anthropological theory… I would use these notes to think about economic change… family cooperation and reciprocity… the efforts to… not simply survive but thrive in the changing world… in my notes I could explore how [these efforts] worked, how they failed, and how they matched up to my expectations and training.

The third set of notes was much more personal and reflected my sense of self and my own experiences. On occasion I wrote letters to long-dead ancestors in anthropology. Looking back on that odd process, I can see it was one way I was able to deal with the ghosts of anthropology’s past that haunted me.

This is a lovely depiction of writing in practice as a method of turning experiences into data. It is also a clear illustration of writing as friend, teacher, and therapist. In the first set of notes we can see writing as a friend to whom Cohen recounted daily events, in the second a teacher showing Cohen how to think about his work and link theory to practice, and in the third a therapist who helped Cohen manage his feelings of being haunted by anthropological ghosts.

This kind of creative ethnographic writing can generate lots of rich data. The downside is the huge amount of work resulting at the analytic stage. For some people, this is so overwhelming that they never complete their research (Cohen 2015:150). Even for those who do find a way through the analytic morass, it will be ‘hard, exhausting work’ that is incredibly time-consuming (Cohen 2015:149). Though again, here, there are creative writing techniques which can help, and we’ll be highlighting some of those later in this section. However, unless you are doing this kind of ethnographic work, we would advise you to limit the amount of data you generate. Working with creative writing can be fun and interesting and so it’s tempting to keep on going. But as we’ve seen, this can present considerable difficulties for analysis, so we recommend resisting any such temptation.”

That should have given you a flavour of the book Richard and I have written. I use the conceptions of writing as ‘friend, teacher, and therapist’ in teaching creative and productive thesis writing to doctoral students. I tell them writing is a teacher; we learn as we write, often surprising ourselves. Writing can be a therapist: obviously an actual therapist is, generally speaking, more use, but if you have a distressing or complicated experience during research, writing about it can be cathartic and help you process your feelings. And writing is always there for you; sometimes annoying and disappointing, but reliable and reasonably predictable, like a good friend.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $75 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $75 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why Secondary Data Should Come First

The argument put forward in this post has been brewing in my mind – and being put into practice in my research work – since some time before COVID19 appeared in our midst. The pandemic has accentuated the point I want to make.

Essentially, my argument is this: researchers should make as much use of secondary data as possible before we even think about gathering any primary data.

Most novice researchers are taught that new research requires primary data; that original research requires data gathered for the purpose by the researcher or the research team. Most research ethics committees focus most of their efforts on protecting participants. We need to change this. I believe we should be teaching novice researchers that new/original research requires existing data to be used in new ways, and primary data should be gathered only if absolutely necessary. I would like to see research ethics committees not only asking what researchers are doing to ensure the safety and wellbeing of participants, but also requiring a statement of the work that has been done using secondary data to try to answer the research question(s), and a clear rationale for the need to go and bother people for more information.

I believe working in this way would benefit researchers, participants, and research itself. For researchers, gathering primary data can be lots of fun and is also fraught with difficulty. Carefully planned recruitment methods may not work; response rates can be low; interviewees often say what they want to say rather than answering researchers’ questions directly. For participants, research fatigue is real. Research itself would receive more respect if we made better and fuller use of data, and shouted about that, rather than gathering data we never use (or worse, reclassifying stolen sacred artefacts and human remains as ‘data’ and refusing to return them to their communities of origin because of their ‘scientific importance’ – but that’s another story).

Some people think of secondary data as quantitative: government statistics, health prevalence data, census findings, and so on. But there is lots of qualitative secondary data too, such as historical data, archival data, and web pages current and past. Mainstream and social media provide huge quantities of secondary data (though with social media there are a number of important ethical considerations which are beyond the scope of this post).

Of course secondary data isn’t a panacea. There is so much data available these days that it can be hard to find what you need, particularly as it will have been gathered by people with different priorities from yours. Also, it’s frustrating when you find what you need but you can’t access it because it’s behind a paywall or it has an obstructive gatekeeper. Comparison can be difficult when different researchers, organisations, and countries gather similar information in different ways. It can be hard to understand, or detect any mistakes in, data you didn’t gather yourself, particularly if it is in large, complicated datasets. Information about how or why data was gathered or analysed is not always available, which can leave you unsure of the quality of that data.

On the plus side, the internet allows quick, easy, free access to innumerable quantitative and qualitative datasets, containing humongous amounts of data. Much of this has been collected and presented by professional research teams with considerable expertise. There is scope for historical, longitudinal, and cross-cultural perspectives, way beyond anything you could possibly achieve through primary data gathering. Working with secondary data can save researchers a great deal of time at the data gathering stage, which means more time available for analysis and reporting. And, ethically, using secondary data reduces the burden on potential participants, and re-use of data honours the contribution of previous participants.

There are lots of resources available on using quantitative secondary data. I’m also happy to report that there is now an excellent resource on using qualitative secondary data: Qualitative Secondary Analysis, a recent collection of really good chapters by forward-thinking researchers edited by Kahryn Hughes and Anna Tarrant. The book includes some innovative methods, interesting theoretical approaches, and lots of guidance on the ethics of working with secondary data.

Some people think that working with secondary data has no ethical implications. This is so wrong it couldn’t be wronger. For a start, it is essential to ensure that informed consent for re-use has been obtained. If it hasn’t, either obtain such consent or don’t use the data. Then there are debates about how ethical it is to do research using secondary data about groups of people, or communities, without the involvement of representatives from those groups or communities. Also, working with secondary data can be stressful and upsetting for researchers – imagine if you were working with historical data about the Holocaust, or (as Kylie Smith does) archival data about racism in psychiatric practice in mid-20th century America. Reading about distressing topics day after day can be harmful to our emotional and mental health, and so to our physical health as well.

These are just a few of the ethical issues we need to consider in working with secondary data. Again, it is beyond the scope of this post to cover them all. So working with secondary data isn’t an easy option; although it is different from working with primary data, it can be just as complex. I believe novice researchers should learn how to find and use secondary data, in ethical ways, before they learn anything about primary data gathering and analysis.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $70 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $70 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Personal Is Empirical

Human beings are natural researchers: exploring, seeking and comparing data, testing, evaluating, drawing conclusions. We do this all our lives. One of our first research methods, when we are only a few months old, is to put everything in our mouths. By the time we are a few years old we are asking incessant questions. We are programmed to investigate. As we get older, our methods get more sophisticated – and if we train as a professional researcher, they become more systematic, too.

Do you know the roots of the word ‘empirical’? It is derived from the Greek word ‘empeirikos’, meaning ‘experienced’. It means something verifiable by experiment or experience. So, the personal is empirical.

Autoethnographers know this already. For a generation now autoethnographers have been ‘utilizing personal stories for scholarly purposes’ (Chang 2008:10). Some have put too much emphasis on the personal stories and not enough on the scholarly purposes, leading to accusations of self-indulgence, navel-gazing, and irrelevance. More, though, have worked to link their personal experience with other data and wider narratives, theory, evidence, policy, and practice, in a systematic and rigorous way.

Embodied researchers also know that the personal is empirical. They focus on the physical, sensory dimensions of experience, as part of the data they collect. This subverts the conventional view of scholarly work as entirely cerebral – or, as the embodied researchers would have it, ‘disembodied research’. Embodied research is also open to accusations of self-interest and irrelevance. Yet embodied researchers point out that no research can in fact be disembodied. Even sitting still and thinking is a physical activity; the brain with which you think forms part of your body.

Other researchers draw on the personal in other ways. In my work on creative research methods, I have been astonished by the number of people who combine their artistic skills, or their writing talents, or their aptitude for making, or their technological savvy, or some other personal attribute with their research. This usually results in enrichment and often innovation, yet even now working in these ways can feel like swimming against the tide. The way we try to contain knowledge in silos, and reify specialisation, is not the norm in human history. It is not long since nobody thought it strange for someone to be both weaver and astronomer, doctor and poet, musician and engineer. Why have we forgotten that ‘the more diverse someone’s knowledge, the more likely they are to be able to identify and implement creative solutions to problems’? (Kara 2020:11).

Musing on all of this, I came up with the phrase ‘the personal is empirical’. I tried it out on a group of students last month and it went down well. Then, like a good scholar, I checked to see whether anyone else had used the phrase already. It was used by one US academic, most recently around 15 years ago. She was a feminist too and I guess for her, as for me, the generation of this phrase was influenced by the old feminist mantra that ‘the personal is political’. Nobody owned that phrase, and nobody owns this one either – you’re free to use it if you wish.

In fact, it would be great if you did. Because we need more people to understand that ‘knowledge is worth having, no matter where it originates’ (Kara 2020:11) – whether that is in the body, or someone’s wider life experience, or in a test tube, or an encounter with a book, or a conversation, or an animated film. As a species, as inhabitants of planet Earth, we have a plethora of problems to solve. We cannot afford to reject knowledge, or create hierarchies of knowledge; we need to value everyone’s expertise. And their experience. And experiments, and evidence, and theories – the whole lot. In fact, it is all empirical, but nobody will argue if you talk about empirical experiments or empirical evidence. The personal is empirical? That’s more provocative. So take this toy I have given you, my dear ones; take it and play!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $70 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $70 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Let’s Talk About Self-Care

This has been such an unkind year that those of us who can practise self-care need to do so more than ever. I say ‘those of us who can’ because practising self-care requires resources in itself – time, at least, and often money too – and so is a manifestation of privilege.

With privilege, I believe, comes responsibility. This is often construed solely as responsibility to care for others. Yet I argue that self-care is also part of that responsibility, particularly for those on whom the responsibility to care for others falls more heavily, such as women, and for those who face daily oppression, such as people of colour and trans people.

Self-care is also part of our responsibility as researchers. Research work can be enormously stressful, and researchers are not often well supported. Research ethics committees rarely consider researcher well-being, an omission I regard as quite unethical. Also, researchers often work alone, gathering and analysing data, which may involve hearing and revisiting distressing stories or phenomena, and is always a mentally taxing business even when it’s not emotionally draining. We are the people who know what we feel and experience, and what we need by way of support and help. It is our responsibility to look after our own wellbeing.

My colleague and friend Dr Petra Boynton has written a really useful book for anyone who is at all uncertain about how or why they might take care of themselves. It is called Being Well in Academia but it has relevance far beyond the ivory towers. The book’s subtitle is Ways To Feel Stronger, Safer And More Connected, and those are topics in which we all have an interest. Petra offers a huge amount of guidance, support, and resources in her concise, readable book, which I recommend highly.

There is a potential problem with emphasizing self-care if it is hijacked by the neoliberal agenda and used to supersede the importance of combating structural inequalities. And there is a potential problem in the opposite direction too, if we pour all our resources into combating structural inequalities and so burn out. For me, self-care and activism need to go hand in hand: if we take good care of ourselves, we will have more energy for working to dismantle structural inequalities. Also, we will be better able to care for others. You have probably heard the saying ‘put your own oxygen mask on before helping others’ – it refers to a drop in aeroplane cabin pressure, and is now used as a metaphor for the importance of self-care.

For much of this year I did not practise what I’m preaching. This has been partly due to circumstance: the first three months of the year were very busy with work including a lot of travelling, then the pandemic put paid to holidays I had planned, and losing my mother to the virus threw everything out of whack. As a result I took my eye off the self-care ball, and so had a big health dip in the autumn. That is now resolved and I’m back to more diligent self-care. So over the next few weeks I will be taking a break from creating content in particular and being on social media in general; I do this every year and it always does me good. I’ll be back the second week in January. This holiday season will be difficult for many people and I would encourage you all to take whatever steps you can to care for yourselves. And remember, here in the northern hemisphere, this time next week the days will be getting longer. The wheel of the year continues to turn, bringing the hope of warmer, sunnier days ahead. I wish you all as happy a holiday as possible, whatever and however you celebrate.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $68 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $68 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!